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Now and Zen

Anyone who scribbles a note on a napkin with an ink marker ends up watching helplessly as the ink soaks into the paper and the words bloat into an illegible mess. While the technique used in Oriental brush painting is similar, the results are far less messy. Those hazy-edged lines become mist-covered lakes and windblown trees, rendering scenes that look as if they've come from a dream. And the viewer isn't the only one who benefits.

"This is part meditation, too," artist and teacher Joan Wong says of the artistic process.

For centuries Buddhist priests in Japan have been using brush painting as a Zen exercise. The emphasis on lines and shading in the mostly black-and-white paintings complements their minimalist take on life. But the priests weren't the first to practice the art. It was brought to Japan in the Seventh Century by scholars returning from a visit to China. When the Japanese first saw an example of the painting technique, they referred to it as Sumi-E, or "ink picture."

At the age of sixteen, Wong began studying Sumi-E with masters in her native Taipei, Taiwan. Now age 54, she teaches both technique and history to her students at various locations in Palm Beach County. "They learn a little bit [about the] culture and the technique and the enjoyment," Wong relates.

Because the Sumi-E artists use thick, jet-black ink, they have to be careful just how much they apply to the canvas; otherwise, it'll spread like wildfire. Soft, natural-fiber brushes are used to perform the various strokes, which determine how thick or thin the lines will be. A broad stroke is used for tree trunks, for example, a delicate stroke for the petals of a flower.

Water is also thrown into the mix, so that a spectrum of grays may be used for shading and contrast. The next step for students is to make use of colored ink pigments, which were eventually added to the Sumi-E palette. With color as an option, Sumi-E students aren't the only ones learning from Wong.

"Lots of watercolor artists take my classes," she says, "because they love the technique, and it really helps them in their work."

-- John Ferri

Four-week sessions of Oriental brush painting classes begin April 1 at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Rd., Delray Beach. The fee is $55, and classes take place Wednesday (intermediate) and Thursday (beginner). Call 561-495-0233. Classes at the Armory Art Center, 1703 S. Lake Ave., West Palm Beach, are offered in six-week Friday sessions beginning May 1. Cost is $117. Call 561-832-1776.

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